Race Report: Morocco’s Titan Desert Stage Race Part 2

Race Coverage Travel

Sonya at Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Javier M

If you missed my story on Stage 1, I’ll bring you up to speed. I was at the Titan Desert Stage Race with 425 racers from all over the world. The race is a 730km mountain bike stage race in Morocco spanning sections of both the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, the hottest desert on the planet.

Day 2 of the Titan offered a unique challenge I had not experienced at other stage races. It combined aspects of bikepacking and stage racing. We had to carry everything we needed for that night as well as the next stage. All that was provided was a set start and finish location, a large communal tent, food and water for meals, slippers, and a blanket since we were at 6,000’. There would also be no shower or outside mechanical service of any kind. We were not supposed to accept or help other racers with mechanical problems. The rest of the planning was at the discretion of the racer; there would be no luggage transfer service that evening.

Communal Tent at Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

I had done some bikepacking and was happy to have the Revelate Designs Pika. I packed for comfort with a 40F down sleeping pad, a ¾ length thermarest, cell phone, a charger for my Garmin, Baby Wipes, an additional tube and patches, a race kit for the next day, Gu gels, Chomps, and Roctane for the 80 miles in front of me and more sports nutrition for the 94 miles the following day. I also brought a down jacket, down pants, a pair of running shorts to wear off the bike. The load was in addition to the 100 oz of water and hydration pack and safety kit that we were required to carry daily. I found it ironic that the amount of gear for one night would be enough for a whole week minus the food and lack of water filter. It was a lot of weight to carry for 80 miles.

The descents were particularly fun with the extra 10 lbs on my bike, but the climbs were heinous. I immediately regretted not training with extra weight on my bike. The familiar landscape of the high desert reminded me of New Mexico where I grew up. The pinnacle of the day was riding through the guts of an 8 km long canyon even as my tires sunk and labored through the heavy shale floor. I was alone except for the turtles who were probably moving faster than me. The rough, rolling dirt road after the canyon would not end and my legs protested against carrying the extra weight for what had been 6 hours since the start. After a few minutes, they magically kicked into 5th gear and off I went. My exuberance was short-lived though as after twenty minutes as my eyes desperately scanned the horizon at the top of each climb with no finish in sight. I was overtaken by a fit of rage and started screaming “WHERE ARE YOU?!” along with a few colorful terms. It didn’t matter, there was no one for miles to hear me.

Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Marc Gasch/Titan Desert

After I dragged my weary carcass across the finish line, things were more jovial. Music was playing and the tireless kitchen staff provided endless mountains of food to bring us back to life. I slumped at the table muttering a polite “shookrun” which means “thank you” in Arabic over my pile of rice, tuna, and veggies. I made my way to the large communal tent to pick my sleeping spot for the night. I was not prepared for what I saw. I know Europeans are less bashful than Americans, but I have never seen so many private parts shamelessly hanging out! Guys were standing around cleaning their parts without any indignity. Some didn’t even bother getting dressed for 20 minutes! I was reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes about good naked and bad naked. Let’s just say I saw a lot of bad naked in several compromising positions; think of toe-touching and spread-eagles.

The time cutoff for the day was 12 hours. Myself and a few others stood at the finish line cheering for the people barely making it to the line in time. It was inspiring to see the grit and patience of the racers finishing in the back of the group day after day. More remarkable was when we saw a small moving light in the distance after dark. It was a man who refused to quit and rode in long after the time cut with nothing but a headlamp to guide his way. After a restless sleep using my backpack as a pillow and ear plugs firmly in place, we were roused early for the 94 mile stage. My legs were sore as if I had been doing heavy weightlifting in the gym and I struggled up with the thought of 4 more days.

Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Marc Gasch/Titan Desert

Stage 3 appeared to be mostly downhill on the profile, but it was unexpectedly demanding, taking another 6 hours. The jarring dirt tracks were slow going. The aid stations were not stocked with any food during the race. There was Powerade at one of the aid stations, but the rest of the sports nutrition was up to us. The days were longer and harder than I anticipated, and I ran out of food each day. The only saving grace was that I had a group to ride with for about half the day with a man calling himself “The King of the Desert” leading the charge. The sun began to bake anything in its path with no shade in site and the thermometer tipping 100 degrees.

My feet with my monstrous Taylor bunions became a liability and I wondered if I could take the pain for 3 more days. It was the worst pain I have felt in my life! The swelling was so ghastly that my foot had angled down and my big toes became the focal point of the blinding pain. I had cut the existing gaping holes in sides of my shoes even bigger and cut my insoles to make more room for swelling. The pain became unbearable to the point where I could apply downward force to the pedals and I actually wondered if it would prevent me from finishing the race. I wasn’t the only one struggling. People were tipping over on their bikes still clipped in because they lacked the strength to unclip. It was dusty and dry at the doorway to the Sahara; a preview of what was to come. I could barely walk at the finish line for several hours. I came up with another plan; for the remainder of the race, I carried an extra water bottle solely for the purpose of dumping on my feet to keep them cooler and reduce swelling. Meanwhile, I had booked massage and physio service with QueBici/TheBikeHeroes. They used kinesio tape to relieve some of the swelling and each day were my saving grace.

Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Marc Gasch/Titan Desert

The topography over the last 3 days had been more dynamic than I had expected. We had pass through the Atlas Mountains with alpine terrain, green grass, bright yellow wildflowers, and snow capped peaks. We had transitioned through impressive canyons and into high desert mountains with sharp plants, meager trees, and altitude. The cool nights with bright stars illuminating the undisturbed black sky reminded us of our isolation from civilization. We dropped in altitude where the roads got dustier and the sun seemed to burn hotter. We were en route to Erg Chebbi where we’d see our first sand dunes.

Race Report: Morocco’s Titan Desert Stage Race Part 1 »
Race Report: Morocco’s Titan Desert Stage Race Part 3 »
Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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  • Gregg Kato says:

    Sonya, thanks for the great write up! I have to ask, what is that interesting necklace you are wearing while racing? A good luck charm, perhaps?

  • Sonya Looney says:

    Hey Gregg! It’s a necklace I got a long time ago because I liked it and I always wear it when I race! It’s not really superstition but I feel like it’s just part of my kit now. :) I really like the symbol – the koru. It symbolizes new growth and strength. I do these races because I love the personal growth from each adventure. It’s also an iconic symbol in New Zealand(I really want to go there!) The engineering/math geek in me also loves the Fibonacci sequence, and the koru which looks like a fern, displays it.

    • Gregg Kato says:

      Thanks for the answer. Considering how many miles you ride with it, I figured it had to have some special meaning…and it does!

  • alejandro says:

    Hi Sonya, I also finished the Titan Desert this year but we didn’t get the chance to meet. My stages took longer than yours but I made it! I just want to say that you describe everything so perfectly that it makes me go back to each stage. Congratulations and thanks

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